Friday, November 13, 2009

At age 6, Christopher Merrill began a brief but lucrative career as a newspaper publisher. His first story was about a young girl who shared the same wing of the hospital as he did and was dying of leukemia.

"I remember writing a story about her. I sold them to my neighbors for one penny apiece," Merrill said. "I had to copy out each one, so it didn't last very long."

While his newspaper career stopped before it ever really started, Merrill has never quit writing.

From his office at Shambaugh House, where he has been director of The University of Iowa's International Writing Program since 2000, to a basement in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, during the Bosnian War, Merrill has used the written word to explain his life's journey. And his experiences have provided great prose. He describes his time in Sarajevo in the early 1990s as "long periods of boredom punctuated by terror."

"At one point, I was stuck in a basement for about 30 hours because they were shelling all around us. There were 12 of us in this basement," Merrill said.

"I was so terrified. My first reaction was to tell jokes and try and relieve the pressure. Then, I thought I will just take notes. I was scribbling down what people said and the stories they told.

"I had no feeling that I would even survive this, because we had big tanks of propane right next to us in the basement, so if there was a direct hit we were curtains. I knew if I was writing that was a way to deal with the terror."

Those words became the book, "Only the Nails Remain: Scenes from the Balkan Wars," published in 1999 by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Merrill's current project, expected to be completed in the next few months, is being written in the key of terror.

The book is about his travels since 9/11 to Malaysia, China, Mongolia, and the Middle East, and the place rituals and ceremonies have in our lives.

"I'm trying to understand war, faith, poetry and ceremony," Merrill said. "I wouldn't say I have any answers, but I do think I have areas of experience that I'm trying to articulate."

Merrill, 52, recently shared stories about writers who didn't let grave circumstances stand in the way of the creative process with Somali youth in the Nairobi and Dadaab refugee camps in Africa.

The U.S. Embassy's Somalia Unit hosted a reading and lecture tour, under the auspices of the UI's International Writing Program. Tour participants conducted workshops with Somali youth from June 9-18. Four distinguished writers – Merrill, Eliot Weinberger, Terese Svoboda, and Tom Sleigh – conducted a workshop in Eastleigh, and then spent three days in Dadaab, where they visited all three camps and reached nearly 200 young people.

In addition to telling tales of a Greek poet writing poems in prison and Soviet poets having to memorize their poems, Merrill was asked an important question by a local woman, which reflected the culture of the camps.

What are you going to do for us?

"I said, ‘We're just writers and we have nothing to give except we can try and write about this,'" Merrill said. "And one of the three young men who were my translators turned to me and said we could write about this. I said, ‘Bingo. That's what this is all about. I don't know this story at all. You've been here for years. You know the story much better than I do. Write the story and then people will know what's going on here.'"

The willingness of these African youth to help themselves is remarkable considering many have called the refugee camps home their whole lives and are facing dim prospects of getting an education beyond high school.

"We were amazed at the number of young people who wanted to do big things with their lives," Merrill said. "One wanted to be the president, one wanted to be the prime minister, one wanted to be a pilot, one wanted to be a doctor. They had what the young share everywhere – a sense of possibility."

Growing up in rural New Jersey, Merrill dreamed of playing professional soccer … or being a poet. Seven literary works later, it appears that Merrill made the right career choice.

While Merrill's competitive athletic career is long over (he also played hockey as a youth), his older daughter Hannah, 13, is carrying that torch for the family. Hannah is a talented figure skater who lives in Chicago five days a week with her mother, while she's training and attending school. "From the minute she got on the ice she felt at home there," Merrill said.

Merrill's younger daughter Abby, 8, has a love of acting. Taking his writing hat off, which he does every so often, Merrill is simply a proud parent when watching his daughters perform.

"It's the joy of any parent watching their child doing something they clearly love to do," Merrill said. "(Abby) seems so happy on stage. That's what I watch when my other daughter skates. She's so happy on the ice."

When talking about his greatest creations – his daughters – Merrill is reminded of something a friend and fellow parent told him. "He said, ‘Now when I cut the grass, I know why I cut the grass.' The focus is off you and the focus is on someone else," Merrill said.